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Sunbreak Cellars - The First Year

Now that we have planted our forty-six grape vines in May of 2003, we have to nurture them through the first few years of growth so that they can start to produce grapes. The first year is a critical year as the grapevine needs to establish a healthy root system - as I understand it, the more the roots can grow in the first year, the more likely it will be able to sustain grape production in the future. So, almost everything that we do in the first year will be focused on root growth. In fact, in the Northwest particularly, after the very first year, it's common practice to cut the vine back down to just two buds in the winter in order to ensure that the roots are given a really strong start compared to the rest of the vine.

Our situation is actually slightly more complex because fifteen of our vines are actually second-year vines that have already been cut back to two buds. It doesn't make that much of a difference; in general, we'll probably tend the vines in much the same way but we will try to start to train the second year vines as the summer progresses.

May 3 - May 20
The First Two Weeks

When we planted the new cuttings, even though they had been started, there was literally almost no growth beyond just the two buds at the top of the cutting -- check out some pictures of the young vines. The root system could hardly be called substantial -- there were just 3-5 white tendrils that were no more than an inch or two long. Clearly, they wouldn't be able to sustain much growth -- nor would they have any capacity to survive long if they did not have water. Starting in May (the same time I planted these vines), the Seattle climate starts to dry out in the summer -- we only get something like 1-2 inches of rain per month in the summer months from June-September. The drip irrigation system that we had put in place as part of our planning phase was going to be essential.

At first, I wanted to make sure that the ground was fairly well saturated with water so that the itty-bitty roots would be able to get settled. For the first two weeks, I turned on the drip irrigators once a day for thirty minutes (a gallon of water per cutting) as I figured that that much water would be able to penetrate to the roots. The cuttings all seemed to respond -- after one week, the first leaves had opened up from the latent buds. All of the vines seemed to be doing fine at this point.

After two weeks, the growth was even more substantial on almost all of the vines. There were a couple that seemed to be growing more slowly but it was too early to be worried -- and, anyway, I'd been led to expect a 10-15% attrition rate in the first year which means that I'd probably lose somewhere between 4-7 vines. At this time, I also checked the spare vines in the planter - I rearranged them a little bit and noticed that the soil was really, really soggy. These spare vines were planted in potting soil and compost so the soil had better water retention than the vines planted in real soil but I was probably overwatering them. After two weeks, the cuttings had probably recovered from any transplant shock they had so I adjusted the drip irrigators to run every other day.

May 20 - June 30
From Spring to Summer

After we changed the watering schedule, I started to monitor the vines more closely as the change might make the weaker vines more noticeable. As expected, I had my first two casualties -- one of the cuttings and one of the one-year old vines just completely dropped their leaves. I didn't have any spares for the one-year Dijon 667 clones so I may just leave its space empty and replace it next year. I replaced the  cutting with one of my spare Pommard clones.

In addition to the two casualties, I also found that a few vines were struggling with some leaf browning. The drip irrigators were still working so I thought that this could be due to any of three factors:

bulletIrrigation water may not be penetrating to the roots. For just the vines that were struggling, I dribbled an extra gallon of water for a few days over those root systems to ensure that water working it's way down through the soil.
bulletSoil nutrient deficiencies may be causing leaf death. I sprinkled some fish fertilizer (good source of nitrogen and other natural organics) over all of the vines. I figured it wouldn't hurt the healthy vines,
bullet'Bad' insects might be nibbling on the vines. I'd noticed a bunch of 'potato bugs' around the two vines that looked the sickest. I sprinkled a little insecticide around the vines on the assumption that there may something at fault there.

Something I did was right as all three of the vines have appeared to recover and are continuing to grow. In fact, over this period, the vines seem to be growing quite well. Most of the one-year old vines have passed two feet in height -- all are over a foot tall. I've been tying them to their stakes about every foot so that the base of the vines are trained to grow straight up. I removed the grow tubes at this point except for the bottom six inches which I left for protection at the base.

The best of the cuttings are about a foot high -- about half the height of the one-year old vines. There is more variability in their growth - I'd estimate that about 60-70% have reached that height. The pictures here show some of the differences between the 1-year old vines and the cuttings.

Even with the weed block fabric, some weeds have found a way to grow. In particular, the horsetails and morning glory seem to do well under the fabric -- I've reached under and decapitated a few. I'm going to try doubling up where they seem to be growing the fastest.

View some of our grape vine pictures as the vines grow.


June 30 - September 30
From Summer to Fall

The summer passed quite quickly. About every two or three weeks, I walked through the vines looking for areas of concern -- making sure that the vines look as though they're getting enough water and checking for weeds that are trying to peek though the mulching fabric. Interesting, the mulching fabric doesn't seem to stop the weeds entirely but that's probably because a little sun still pokes through the fabric.

I also finished wiring up the trellis so that the growing vines have something to attach to as they grow vertically. Ultimately, this will make sure that they canopy gets as much sunlight as possible but, for now, it's just helping to keep things organized and look official. One way that we're keeping the growth stay at least a little organized is tying off the vines after they've grown a foot or two so that they stay somewhat close to the trellis.

On the positive side, it does look as though at least 75% are going to have good solid growth -- of the rest, most are probably going to be OK although it's obvious that two of the vines have just not made it.

Through the creation of our vineyard, we relied on three books: From Vines to Wines gave us the incentive and basic information; The Grape Grower is a great book on planting as well as pest management and fertilizers; and Oregon Viticulture offers the most in-depth knowledge of managing the vineyard.

October 1 - Winter
From Fall into Dormancy

In early October, the local Puget Sound wineries started to harvest their grapes. No such concerns for our small vineyard simply because the vines are too young for any fruit. We did find that the longest vines had reached almost twelve feet long! The majority of the vines are probably 1/4 - 1/2 inches in diameter. All in all, it seems that it was a pretty successful year for our little vineyard which should be a good sign for next year. Maybe we will try to let four or five bunches of grapes grow next year to see what happens.

As the nights grow colder, it looks as though we might have just a little mildew on some of the leaves. That will be something for us to look at more carefully next year.

Some of the books say that you should give the vines a really deep soaking (4-5 gallons each) as the roots are working to store up all the nutrients for next year's early spring growth. In Seattle, it's been a dry summer and, even though we've been irrigating all summer, it is probably good advice as we've really only been watering within a foot or so of the vines and, hopefully, the roots are extending out past that.

As the vines go into their dormant period, they will hopefully harden up over the winter. I'll prune them in late winter (probably February?) and then we'll have the true test to see which are really growing to grow next year.


Read about the rest of the background behind our vineyard. This description will be updated as we achieve each next level. (The current chapter is listed in red.)

bulletIntroduction - The Vineyard Next Door. Our goals and objectives for our backyard vineyard.
bulletLe Goût du Terroir. Our terroir -- the available land we plan to use.
bulletShifting The Landscape. Six years before we even thought about a vineyard, our backyard started to evolve.
bulletThinking of the Fruit of the Vine. From the germ of idea to our first research into our options, here's what we learned about possibilities for a home vineyard in Seattle.
bulletPlanning, Planning, Not Yet Planting. As we continued our planning, we sunk much deeper into the details of planning.
bullet Time For Planting. We got the vines! Read about our planting and first year of growing. We are currently still in the middle of this year and will be updating this section periodically.
bullet The First Year. Once we planted the wines, we still had a lot of work to do in the first year to ensure that they would be healthy and make it into their second year.
bulletThe Second Year. The vines made it through the first summer and winter. This year, we're watching for solid growth as the vines continue to establish their roots.
bulletReferences. Here are the resources that we relied on for research.


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